Guess what, fam? I just wrapped up my last full-time semester of graduate school! With just 3 credits to finish this summer and an upcoming gig teaching 8th grade English, I’m looking forward to getting into some really fantastic young adult literature. Luckily, it seems that our nation’s independent booksellers are here to motivate me, because today (Saturday, April 29th) is #IndependentBookStoreDay!
After picking up copies of my students’ summer reading assignments, I realized that it was high time I updated my Reading Liberation kids’ lit list and review some of my favorite books for freedom fighters ages 11 and up. (I know, I skipped kids ages 5-10, but truth be told, I…. don’t know what they read?)
To make this list helpful for the teachers and caregivers in the audience, I’ll not only provide a quick synopsis and review of each book, but also their approximate reading levels and ideas for discussion. Please note that grade levels are just to help you gauge reading ability and not a suggestion for how old a reader should be. Also, to make it a little easier on myself, I’m only including novels. Maybe eventually I can get around to poetry and nonfiction, too.
I hope you (and the big kid in your life) enjoy these books as much as I have!
El Deafo by CeCe Bell is a graphic novel/loose memoir about Bell’s childhood and learning to live with deafness – including learning to read lips and use one very awkward hearing aid – after surviving meningitis. Bell does not shy away from honestly depicting the difficulties of becoming disabled: the anger she harbors toward her well-meaning but ignorant teachers, the isolation she experiences as a tween, and the empowerment she eventually creates for herself. I especially love this novel because it is by and about a deaf person, on her own terms, but it is not just for d/Deaf kids – it helps all kids learn a little about how to relate to and befriend kids who experience the world differently.
- Lexile Level: 420 (or a 2nd-3rd grade reading level)
- Appropriate and relatable for kids ages 10+
The Giver by Lois Lowry is one of my all-time favorite books — and a modern classic in youth literature. Jonas is a 12-year-old boy living in a utopian community built around sameness. At the start of the story, the community is preparing for an annual “coming of age” ceremony in which all the children born in Jonas’s year are given their adult work assignment. Jonas becomes the Receiver of Memory: the one who must hold on to all of the memories, lessons, pain, joy, and knowledge of past civilizations so that nobody else is burdened. He receives them from the Giver, and the two eventually grapple with the ethics of their society, and whether “sameness” can be justified. The Giver is a great way to introduce social justice topics like the ethics of hegemony, the dangers of obedience vs disobedience, and how hierarchies and authority are created and upheld in society.
- Lexile Level: 760 (4th grade-ish), and appropriate for any age
- Younger or particularly sensitive kids might want to read and discuss this book with a grown-up, as issues like euthanasia and abuse are discussed
The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly is a great book for any girl who has been told “girls shouldn’t…” and a reminder of the kind of spunk and determination it takes to be a trailblazer. Callie is an eleven-year-old girl in 1899 Texas who loves nature, dirt, and seeing what she can get away with. Her cantankerous grandfather, an avid naturalist and big Darwin fan, takes her under his wing, sharing his library, specimens, and wisdom with her. Meanwhile, she struggles against her mother who expects her to grow up to be a housewife. The book ends with the new year and the invention of the telephone – and luckily, there’s a sequel so we can watch Callie grow as the new century unfolds! Related topics of discussion are: how much has changed in the South since 1899? What restrictions do girls who love science still face? How should we respond when someone says “that’s for _______?”
- Lexile Level: 830, around 4th or 5th grade, but a fun read for anyone ages 9-14
- Fun fact!: Calpurnia Tate is Kelly’s debut novel — her day job is running a medical practice — and it earned her a Newbery Honor!
One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia is a multiple-award-winning novel about a pre-teen girl and her younger siblings visiting their estranged mother in California in the summer of 1968. Turns out, her mother doesn’t seem to show much interest, and sends them to a free breakfast program and summer camp run by The Black Panthers. When their mother is arrested for her activist efforts, the kids are taken in by another member of the party. The children learn about Black pride, solidarity, and more from the party, and try to understand their mother who had abandoned them long ago. Themes for discussion include perceptions of the Black Panther Party and the civil rights movement, how policing impacts families, taking pride in African-American heritage, women’s liberation, and what it means to be family.
- Lexile Level: 750 (4th grade), appropriate for ages 9-13.
- Williams-Garcia wrote two more books about this family, both of which earned Coretta Scott King awards
Petey by Ben Mikaelson is two stories in one. Part 1 is told from the perspective of Petey, a man born with Cerebral Palsy in 1920’s Montana (based on Clyde Cothern, a friend of the author). He is placed in a mental institution at age 2 after doctors assume that he is too disabled to learn to walk, talk, read, or take care of himself. He suffers neglect and abuse in the institution, and remains institutionalized until he is moved into a nursing home in the 1990s. This brings us to Part 2, when we meet Trevor, a young child of divorce. He stops some neighborhood boys from pelting Petey with snowballs, and the two become good friends. Trevor learns to communicate with Petey, and they eventually become their chosen family. It’s a tear-jerking (but admittedly kinda’ cheesey) story that gets kids thinking about the history of disability rights, why inclusion and public school matter, and what it means to be a friend of someone with a disability.
- Lexile Level: 740 (4th grade), and appropriate for kids ages 9-13. I put that cap on it just because older teens might find Petey too cheesey.
- This books contains ableist slurs in a historical context, and you may want to talk about this with your kiddo/student
The Hunger Games (3-book series) by Suzanne Collins: What, did you think I WOULDN’T include The Hunger Games? I love these books so MUCH! Just in case you live under a rock (which, if you are, how are you on the internet?), this series follows Katniss, a 16-year-old girl living in a post-apocalyptic/dystopian version of the United States called Panem. In the first book, she represents her District in the Hunger Games, a grotesque spectator event in which 24 children ages 12-17 fight to the death. After her first games, Katniss unwittingly becomes the face of a growing underground resistance in Catching Fire. In Mockingjay, the resistance becomes a full-on civil war. The books aren’t all about battles and politics – we’re also privy the teens as they cope with trauma, the effects of deprivation and state violence on working-class families, and the best, most realistic teen relationship drama I’ve ever read. Read it with a teen in your life, and enjoy all the conversations about political resistance, power, retribution, justice, and self-determination!
- Average Lexile Level for the series: 810, or 5-6th grade.
- It goes without saying that all three of these books are incredibly violent. Some younger readers might find the more violent scenes upsetting.
In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez is an intense novel about the Mirabal sisters, four young women who came of age in the Dominican Republic during the Trujillo Era – one of the bloodiest political eras in the whole of the Americas. The four sisters not only try to carve out their own futures as women in the 1940 and 50s, but also join the rebellion against their murderous dictator until he assassinates them in 1960. Alvarez is one of the most celebrated Hispanic authors in America, and for good reason: she has a rich, poetic writing style that doesn’t suck you in – it embraces you. Her style and voice make the story all the more poignant – we feel like we have a relationship with the Mirabals, and come to understand how the political can become so personal, and what compels someone to risk everything in the fight for justice.
- Lexile Level: 910, supposedly a 6th grade level, but I would not recommend this for readers under age 14 (and that’s not something I say lightly).
- Note: This book includes a detailed diagram of how to make a bomb.
First Spring Grass Fire by Rae Spoon is a story (actually, a collection of stories) of a gender-nonconforming teen growing up in a strict, Pentecostal Christian household with a schizophrenic father. Rae blurs the line between memoir, novel, and short story in this powerful debut book exploring the relationships between place, upbringing, and identity, and the power of music to transform our understanding of all three. One of its strengths is how a person explores the issue of sexuality and gender identity when they don’t have any language to describe it, a feeling that all kinds of teens (but especially queer and trans teens!) will understand. This is a great book to make available in a class library if you do Reader’s Workshop or Dialogue Journals, or for an adult and teen to read together. In addition to gender identity and sexuality, this book can spark great conversations about the power of music, how to support someone dealing with mental illness, and our relationship with our hometowns.
- Lexile Level: Not available, but I’d wager this is a 14-and-up book just because of the heavy content.
- Note: If you’re looking for a novel about gender identity for younger kids, check out George by Alex Gino.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith is a much-loved classic novel about a second generation Irish-American family growing up in the Williamsburg slum in New York City. The story centers on Francie, a pre-teen girl trying to educate her way out of poverty as her family deals with alcoholism, unemployment, discrimination, xenophobia, birth, and death. While the Irish may not suffer the same kind of discrimination they did in the 1900s, the book’s message of resilience and personal growth in the face of adversity is itself timeless. Topics for discussion include how the immigrant experience has changed (and remained the same) in the past century, the effects of poverty, the American Dream, and how families endure in times of hardship.
- Lexile Level: 810, or roughly 6th grade.
- The writing style may feel a little dated to younger kids, so this is best for readers age 12 and up.
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston is quite possibly the most important book I have ever read. Hurston broke the mold of what African-American authors were “supposed” to do during the Harlem Renaissance: she celebrated rural life, ancestral spirituality, African-American Vernacular English, and the uniqueness of Black womanhood. Their Eyes is the story of Janie Crawford, a young Black woman trying to find and define herself in the Jim Crow-era deep South. She navigates three marriages, the development of the all-Black city of Eatonville, and rural living as she seeks real, passionate love. It is rich, honest, lovely, brutal, uplifting, and perfect. There is so much to discuss and unpack while reading this book. For teachers, Their Eyes is an opportunity to introduce students to a book they’ll find themselves returning to again and again.
- Lexile Level: 1080, or around 8th grade. But honestly: the more mature the kid, the better.
- Note: This book includes some discussion of rape and depictions of domestic violence.
- Teachers of middle school students who want to include some Zora Neale Hurston may want to check out Moses, Man of the Mountain, which blends the story of Exodus with Black folklore – a great fit during a Civil War unit.